Everything Kevin Durant has done or said over the past couple years has been looked at in terms of his upcoming free agency. "Does this comment mean he is leaving OKC"? "Does Russell Westbrook's emergence make him more or less likely to stay"? And on and on. Now, his watch (ahem, contract) has finally ended, and he is a free agent.
Durant has been linked to Los Angeles for what feels like forever—but usually to that "other" LA team. Only recently have rumors started to swirl about the Slim Reaper coming to the Clippers. In fact, just yesterday our own Lucas Hann broke news on Twitter that the Clippers are going to make an effort to bring in Durant. KD joining Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, and the rest of the squad makes a whole lot of sense: the Clippers have had a hole at small forward the entirety of the Chris Paul era, and Durant is arguably the best player at that position in the NBA. However, could he even join the Clippers as a free agent?
The answer is..... kind of. The Clippers do not have nearly enough room to add another max contract, as the most they can offer is the paltry Mid Level Exception. However, if Durant really wanted to come to the Clippers, he could demand a sign and trade for one of the max players already on the Clips: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, or DeAndre Jordan. Trading him for Paul makes no sense, as without CP3 the whole situation is way less attractive and leaves the team without any kind of point guard. The decision then comes down to one of the two Clippers' big men, and Blake Griffin is by far the better option to trade. Durant fits in more smoothly with DJ than Blake, as DJ requires the ball less and complements him on defense better, and Griffin is also a superior match for Oklahoma City, who would need another premier scorer to replace Durant. Theoretically, the deal could work.
In this particular scenario, both teams would actually do the trade as well. If Durant was leaving OKC anyway, getting Blake Griffin in return would be excellent for them. Blake and Russell Westbrook on the same team would be dynamite on offense and one of the most spectacular athletic duos in the history of the NBA. For the Clippers, as much as Blake has done for the franchise, and as good as he is, Durant is an upgrade in every way. He is a better shooter, defender, and ball-handler (though Blake actually might be a better passer). More importantly, Durant is probably the best possible fit next to Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Redick. The threat of his shooting would clear the key for CP3 to do his magic and open up endless rim runs for DJ. JJ would start getting far better looks, and his incredible efficiency would only rise. There would be a similar question as to who the fifth player in the starting lineup would be, but Durant's versatility to play either the small forward or power forward position would make the fit that much easier.
The most important question is whether or not Durant would want to come to the Clippers. And that is impossible for anyone who isn't Kevin Durant to know. Just in terms of team strength and potential, it's a really tough call. The Thunder got farther this year in the playoffs than the Clippers and pushed one of the best teams in history to the absolute brink in the Western Conference Finals, but there was a whiff of happenstance to that occurrence. They weren't much better in the regular season than the Clippers despite Blake Griffin being out most of the year, and their defense transformed from mediocre to terrifying out of nowhere in the playoffs. It's possible that they took lessons learned from this year and become a better team in the future, but it's equally likely that they don't improve much next season. The Clippers with Durant would likely be just as good if not better in 2017, but there are other factors involved.
The Thunder are younger than the Clippers. Austin Rivers is the only young-ish rotation player on the Clippers, and it is fairly unlikely that he substantially improves much more than he already has. The Thunder, on the other hand, have Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, and Cameron Payne as sources of upside. Of course, they are going to have to pay those guys, especially the first two, but nevertheless they have a stronger core going forward than the Clippers.
The other issue is the competition. The Spurs are old and might retool significantly over the offseason. They do have a core of Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Danny Green that should excel next season, but much of their team is old and will either move on or retire. They probably won't be as good as they were this past season, though it is wise never to count out Coach Popovich and the Spurs. More significantly, the Warriors can only decline from 2016. Festus Ezeli and Harrison Barnes headline a staggering eight free agents on their team, most of whom will probably move on to larger paydays elsewhere. While replacements might sign on for cheap to replace them, it's unlikely that their bench is as good next season as it was this past year. There is also the aging of two key players on their team: Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut. Iguodala has been their 2nd best player in the NBA Finals so far and won Finals MVP last year, but he is 32 and has a lot of tread on his tires. If he and Bogut (31) decline at all next season, the Warriors will not be as scary.
Durant will look at all this, and he might well think that the Thunder could be the best team in the West next season. The only "significant" player they could lose is Dion Waiters, and he is the 7th man on their roster. While the Clippers with Durant would also have a decent chance at winning the West, they probably wouldn't be a substantially better team than if the Thunder ran it back. Sticking with the Thunder, a team that he knows and is close with (and with whom he can sign a bigger contract) is less risky than going to an entirely different situation.
Additionally, the Clippers location in the loaded Western Conference makes them a less attractive destination than weaker teams in the watered down Eastern Conference. This year's playoffs have shown if nothing else that the East is still underpowered compared to the West. The Cavs ran through the East with little resistance but look completely outclassed against the Warriors-- completely unlike the Thunder. Durant has a better chance of reaching the NBA Finals next year by joining a mid-tier East team like the Raptors, Hawks, Celtics, or Wizards over the Clippers even though all those teams are worse. If Durant were to leave, it just makes more sense that he would go out East
While the Clippers do have the means to acquire Kevin Durant in the offseason, and it isn't a laughable idea, it remains unlikely. All signs are that he is happy where he is, and the Thunder were two minutes away from going to the NBA Finals just a week ago. Even if Durant does leave, the Clippers are merely one of a multitude of suitors, others of whom appear to be better options. They should definitely reach out to Durant on July 1 when free agency begins, but they shouldn't hold their breath.